This post was originally written by Leo Babauta for Zen Habits. Republished here with permission.
Sure, we all know how to do nothing. We all know how to lay around and waste time. But many of us are too busy to do it much, and when we do it, our minds are often on other things. We cannot relax and enjoy the nothingness. Here is the true art of doing nothing.
The Art of Doing Nothing
Doing nothing can be a waste of time, or it can be an art form. Here’s how to become a master, and in the process, improve your life, melt away the stress and make yourself more productive when you actually do work.
Doing nothing, in the true sense of the word, can be overwhelming if you attempt to do too much nothing at once. Do small nothings at first. Focus on 5-10 minutes at a time, and start your practice sessions in a safe place — at home, not at work or in a busy public place. You may also not be ready to do nothing in the middle of nature, so do it in your bedroom or living room. Find a time and place where there are not many distractions, not much noise, not a lot of people to bother you.
Shut off all distractions — TV, computer, cell phones, and the like. Doing nothing is hard when our communications gadgets are calling at us to do something.
Now, close your eyes, and do nothing. Yes, some people will say you’re doing something — you’re sitting there or laying there, closing your eyes. But we mean doing nothing in the sense that if someone were to call us up and ask what we’re doing, we say “Oh, nothing.” Don’t let them call you up, though. They are trying to distract you.
After 5-10 minutes of doing, nothing, you can quit, and go do something. But try to do this every day, or as much as possible, because it is not possible to become a master without practice.
The first place to start in the quest for mastery over this art is in your breathing. If this sounds suspiciously like meditation, well, cast those suspicions out of your mind. We are not here to do suspicion — we are doing nothing.
Start first by breathing slowly in, and then slowly out. Now closely monitor your breath as it enters your body, through your nose, and goes down into your lungs, and fills your lungs. Now feel it as it goes out of your body, through your mouth, and feel the satisfying emptying of your lungs.
Do this for 5-10 minutes, if you can. Practice this as you can. When you start thinking about other things, well, stop that! Don’t beat yourself up about it, but bring your thoughts back to your breathing every time.
An important part of doing nothing is being able to completely relax. If we are tense, then the doing of the nothing is really for naught. Relaxing starts by finding a comfortable place to do your nothing — a soft chair, a plush couch, a well-made, clean bed. Once you’ve found this spot, lie in it, and wiggle around to make it fit your body better. Think of how a cat lies down, and makes itself comfortable. Cats are very, very good at doing nothing. You may never approach their level of mastery, but they make for great inspiration.
Next, try the breathing technique. If you are not completely relaxed by now (and a short nap would be a great indication of relaxation), then try self massage. Yes, massage is much better when administered by other hands, but self massage is great too. Start with your shoulders and neck. Work your way up to your head and even your face. Also do your back, and legs and arms.
Yet another great way of relaxing is an exercise where you tense each muscle in your body, one body part at a time, and then let the tensed muscle relax. Start with your feet, then your legs, and work your way up to your eyebrows. If you can do the top of your head, you may be too advanced for this article.
Once you are relaxed, see if you can relax even more.
Bathing – an advanced stage
Those who are in the beginning stages of the Art of Doing Nothing should not attempt this stage. But once you’ve become proficient at the above steps, the stage of the Bath can be pretty great.
The bath must be nice and hot. Not lukewarm, but hot. Bubbles are also required, even if you are a man who is too manly for this. Just don’t tell any of your guy friends. Other bath accessories, such as a loofah sponge, or bath gels, or potpourri, are very optional.
Again, you must have all distractions shut off. Bathing is also best done if you are alone in the house, but if not, everyone else in the house must know that you CANNOT be disturbed, even if the house is burning down. (Maybe…)
Step into your bath, one foot at a time, very slowly. If your bath is properly hot, it is best if you get into it an inch at a time. Once you are fully immersed (and you should go completely under, head included, at first), close your eyes, and feel the heat seeping through your body.
You may begin to sweat. This is a good thing. Allow the sweat to flow. You may need a glass of water as the sweat could dehydrate you. A good book is another great way to enjoy your bath. Allow your muscles to be penetrated by the heat, to be relaxed completely, and feel all your worries and stresses and aches and inner turmoil flow out of your body into the water.
A hot bath is even more awesome if followed by a bracing cold shower. Either way, get out of the bath once the water is no longer warm and your skin is very raisin-like.
Tasting and feeling
Doing nothing is also great when accompanied by very good beverages or food. Good tea or coffee, wine, hot cocoa, and other beverages go very well with the Art. It’s best to take these beverages by themselves, with no food, and without a book or other distractions. Focus on the liquid as you sip it slowly, savoring every bit of the flavor and texture and temperature in your mouth before swallowing, and feeling the swallow completely. Close your eyes as you do this. Truly enjoy this drink.
Foods are also great: berries, rich desserts, freshly made bread, soup, or whatever it is that you love. Be sure you eat it slowly, savoring every bite. Chew slowly, and close your eyes as you enjoy the food. Feel the texture in your mouth. It is bliss!
Doing nothing in nature
Once you’ve passed the above stages, it is time to practice this gentle art out in nature. Find a peaceful place — in your front yard if that’s peaceful, a park, the woods, at the beach, a river, a lake — places with water are excellent. Places out of reach of the sounds of traffic and city life are best.
Out here in nature, you can practice the art for 20 minutes, an hour, or even longer. There are fewer distractions, and you can really shut yourself off from the stresses of life. Don’t just let your mind wander everywhere — focus on the natural surroundings around you. Look closely at the plants, at the water, at the wildlife. Truly appreciate the majesty of nature, the miracle of life.
Incorporating the Art in daily life
This is the final stage of mastering this Art. Don’t attempt it until you’ve practiced and become competent at the above stages.
Start by doing nothing while you are waiting in line, at the doctor’s office, on a bus, or for a plane. Wait, without reading a newspaper or magazine, without talking on the phone, without checking your email, without writing out your to-do list, without doing any work, without worrying about what you need to do later. Wait, and do nothing. Concentrate on your breathing, or try one of the relaxation techniques above. Concentrate on those around you — watch them, try to understand them, listen to their conversations.
Last, try doing nothing in the middle of chaos, in your workplace or other stressful environment. Just shut everything out, close your eyes, and think about your breathing. Try a relaxation technique. If you can do this, in the middle of a stressful day at work or with the kids, you will allow yourself to focus more fully on the task at hand. You will be relaxed and ready to concentrate, to bring yourself into a state of flow. (Warning: Doing nothing could get you in trouble with your boss, so be careful! But if it makes you more productive, you boss might not mind.)
Finally, the Art of Doing Nothing cannot be mastered overnight. It will take hours and hours of practice, of hard work (doing nothing isn’t easy!). But you will enjoy every minute of it! Try it today.